Shock but not surprise – that’s how an Auckland woman reacted to a racist depiction of a black person up for sale at a Mt Eden auction house
Diana Phillips felt “immediate straight-up fury” on seeing a racist caricature of a black person for sale in the window of a Mt Eden auction house.
The Mt Eden resident said the hand-painted tin poster screams of not only the “horrific dehumanisation of black bodies and non-white culture” – but also the widespread acceptance of such practises in New Zealand.
Cordy’s auction house director Andrew Grigg said the poster was removed from its “inappropriate” roadside position when it was brought to his attention after half a day.
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But Phillips contends she saw it in a window sill position numerous times over the course of six days.
Phillips, who is has a Pākehā Kiwi parent and a Black American parent, said it wasn’t the first time she’d come across this kind of material in New Zealand.
“It’s happened often enough that it makes me highly uncomfortable especially when I see people walk passed and not react to it,” she said.
And not only did passersby have little reaction to it – some bidders must have had a very positive reaction to it. At least one was willing to pay around $600 for the item last Monday after an auction of 37 bids.
Phillips said she moved to New Zealand around five years ago, and was surprised by attitudes towards race.
“Aotearoa New Zealand has an image in the world of being a progressive country, quite granola,” she said. “I was surprised to realise the deeply conservative culture that underscores that image in reality.”
She said while during her time in the US she had experienced “blatant and terrifying” examples of racism, in New Zealand it was subtler and more insidious – perhaps making it harder for people to admit and face.
“People here need to realise there are grander implications to letting daily quotidian racism happen,” she said. “There should be a magnifying glass on this, but there’s not even a pair of bifocals.”
Cordy’s Grigg said the auction house had been contacted by three people about the poster.
First, by a neighbour who “alerted us that it was in the front window”, after which he said it was immediately removed. Then two other people emailed about it after it had been moved.
The hand-painted tin poster was a part of the estate sale for Glenn MacDonald, a much-loved Wellingtonian purveyor of curios also known as Mr Smiles, who died in 2019.
MacDonald used the poster in the window of his own shop, which operated from the mid-1970s through the end of the millennium, at the top end of Cuba Street.
The poster was one of almost 500 items from MacDonald’s collection which were auctioned, including vintage movie posters, collectable tins, antique toys and figurines.
One was a cast-iron moneybox from the Victorian era in the shape of a caricature of a black person. It was then used as the image for the hand-painted tin poster which became something of a mascot for MacDonald – the titular Mr Smiles.
The money box went for almost $700 after 57 bids.
Someone paid more than $400 for antique money box with a prejudiced pedigree. The ‘Dinah’ cast iron money banks were made by an English firm in the early 1900s for a primarily North American market.
They depict an African woman with an outstretched palm – the would-be banker places a coin on her palm and operates a mechanism that sees her eyes roll back, her tongue recede and the coin swallowed.
Money banks like this at the time were marketed as “the Jolly [n-word]”.
According to historians Christopher Barton and Kyle Somerville, racism and class-based oppression were taught to children through the reproduction of racist images in toys and games.
They argue that between 1880 and 1930, the perceived encroachment of other cultures into the landscape of white middle-class America saw the popularity of these products skyrocket in a kind of fear-based response.
It was a time when derisive depictions of black people were common forms of kitsch. Lawns across America once played host to lawn jockeys – a kind of racist version of a garden gnome – while entertainers like Al Jolson, ‘blackface’s shameful poster boy’, enjoyed decades of rapt applause.
So what are these relics of the past doing in New Zealand, where the population of African descent was small enough that most Kiwis would not even have known a black person through the 20th Century?
Like the poster in Mr Smiles’ collection, these kinds of curios were looked on with detachment from the reality of the civil rights struggle in the United States or the real lives of black people bearing the brunt of racial abuse.
Instead they took their place as objects of pop culture – curios.
And like the makers and sellers of golliwog dolls in this country, it seems there remains a desire from some to hold tightly to these objects and not let go.
A Picton woman was banned from selling the dolls at a market after the Marlborough District Council received complaints. However, those complaints only came when a cruise ship carrying people from overseas arrived and the dolls were seen by British and American eyes.
The dolls were banned from sale on Trade Me in 2019, alongside Confederate flags and Nazi paraphernalia.
The golliwog was first born from a children’s book by American writer Florence Kate Upton in 1895, where it appeared as a cartoon character carrying a litany of visual tropes tightly aligned with minstrel performances – jet black skin, bright red lips, a wild bushel of hair and a stiff-collared shirt under a long-tailed jacket.
The golliwog took off from there, appearing in doll form, and as an advertising mascot for products like Robertson’s jam or the aniseed confection known as Black Jack.
In the United Kingdom, the character was all but kicked out of the culture during the 1980s. But a strange love for the golliwog lingers on in some corners of New Zealand even some 40 years after that.
“I’m thinking that 1895 is really long enough ago to be too far back in the collective imagination to be still considered “nostalgic”,” said Phillips. “And I’m thinking that what was taboo in the late twentieth century has absolutely no business in the front windows of any city street in 2023. Ignorance can no longer be claimed as an excuse.”
But nostalgia is inevitably the trade plied by any antique shop or dealer of old curiosities. The suffix of the word literally means ‘pain’ in Greek – as if to say to dig through certain sections of buried past is to bring about fresh agonies – ghosts wait in the past.
Grigg has been in charge of Cordy’s since 2006. According to the company’s website, it has kept up with the times while still keeping an eye on history.
“Today Cordy’s has moved well into the 21st century while maintaining the same old-fashioned principles.”
Phillips wondered at what exactly these old-fashioned principles might be in this case.
In the weeks following the Mr Smiles auction, Cordy’s has auctioned off a swastika-laden German medal from World War ll, a National Socialist Motor Corps dagger from 1937 and a set of eyebrow-raising vintage Māori dolls.
But what is the auctioneer’s legal position when it comes to selling these controversial objects? Legal experts say current hate speech legislation is unlikely to find fault unless a sign is ‘likely to excite hostility against or bring into contempt any group of persons’.
And the threshold for this condition is one guarded by a legal system overwhelmingly populated with people who are not members of the group in question.
University of Auckland law lecturer Dylan Asafo said while the signs with the anti-Black caricatures were clearly racist, there are a number of hurdles for the auctioning of these signs to be considered hate speech under our current hate speech legislation.
Section 61(b) of the Human Rights Act 1993 states that it shall be unlawful for any person… to use in any public place…or within the hearing of persons in any such public place, or at any meeting to which the public are invited or have access, words which are threatening, abusive, or insulting… being matter or words likely to excite hostility against or bring into contempt any group of persons in or who may be coming to New Zealand on the ground of the colour, race, or ethnic or national origins of that group of persons.”
Asafo said the signs themselves clearly constitute a ‘matter or words’, but whether the act of auctioning them off is as well is more complicated that could come down to how the signs are described on the website and at the auction.
“In my view, the act of auctioning these signs should count as “matter or words” even if the sellers or auctioneers do not use overtly racist language to describe and sell the signs on the website or at the action,” he said.
“This is because by making the signs available, accessible and visible to the public and for the purchaser to use as they see fit, the persons or groups responsible for the auction are nonetheless actively proliferating the hateful, “abusive” and “insulting” speech expressed by the signs, even if they are doing so indirectly.”
He acknowledged some would argue the signs do not have an explicit or overt hateful message on the surface so should not be seen and treated as hate speech or even racist.
“However, as Black and other anti-racist commentators have made clear, these caricatures nonetheless express anti-Black racism and have long caused harm to Black communities.”
Asafo said: “The reality is that people from targeted groups know better than anyone whether speech is likely to excite hostility or contempt against them, but the objective standard the law currently imposes prevents their views from even being taken into account.”
Phillips said the sale of these kinds of items showed a “sleep, streetside racism” that allows prejudice to root itself in the minds of the population.
“I refuse to be complicit in this. This auction house needs to be called out for the damage it is causing to the community, and it needs to take these works out of commission,” she said.
“Cordy’s has no business receiving capitalist gains on the systemic racism and colonialism that haunts us all in the garish eyes of the golliwogg.”